Even before last year's earthquake, Haiti was one of the toughest places in the Western Hemisphere to be a woman. Nowhere else in Latin America, North America, or the Caribbean is the maternal mortality rate higher, literacy rate lower, and life expectancy shorter than for women in Haiti.
Yet relatively simple actions can go a long way toward improving the safety and welfare of women living in tent cities.
One of the most common requests from camp residents is lighting. Dark, unsafe conditions embolden predators. That is why the United Nations, the U.N. Foundation, and other partners are distributing solar-powered lights to camps - and letting women decide where they should be placed.
A number of reports indicate that teenage pregnancy is on a sharp rise in these camps. The lack of access to reproductive health services, education, and medical care makes pregnancy dangerous - particularly for young girls. There were about 200 nurse midwives in Haiti before the earthquake. Now there are about 75. The earthquake destroyed several clinics. Today, women are giving birth on the sidewalks.
The wave of teen pregnancies must be accompanied by measures to promote maternal health and bring reproductive health services to the camps. Without proper access to care and education, rates of sexually transmitted diseases can be expected only to rise.
The United Nations is at the forefront of an effort to restore clinics, train midwives, distribute contraception, and provide reproductive and health education to teens surviving in difficult circumstances. To date, the U.N. Population Fund has distributed 25,000 "dignity kits," which include sanitary napkins, antibacterial soap, underwear, towels, and washing supplies. Fund workers have even commandeered two tap-taps - the elaborately decorated buses that are ubiquitous in Port-au-Prince. Youth leaders travel from camp to camp on these trucks to educate young people about reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, and family planning.
This peer-education program has seen successes, but with only two trucks and limited staff, it is not enough. These efforts must be expanded, but there isn't enough funding. A U.N. appeal for its Haiti earthquake response is more than $400 million short of its target.
With about 43 percent of households headed by women, they must be at the top of the international community's agenda for Haiti. As the country rebuilds and people move from tent cities to more permanent dwellings, it is critically important that we support employment opportunities for women and provide education for girls.
While the circumstances are dire, brave and resourceful women are finding ways to survive and thrive. Even more can have a brighter future if we work to improve the health and welfare of Haiti's most vulnerable. First and foremost, that means protecting women and girls in Haiti's tent cities.